If your career was a cake, what would be the recipe?

Narratives provide recipes for careers, but we rarely consider whether the cake is worth eating.

Career Design Lab

If your career was a cake, your career story would be the icing.  

Career story is a narrative you tell others about how you got to this point in your life, and why you want this next job or career change. It is an attention grabber, in a cover letter or interview, that persuades a potential employer on why you are the perfect match for their needs. After all, we live in the story economy and it is the most compelling stories that win the clicks, hearts, minds – and jobs.  

The icing is important, but the real power of narratives operates at a much deeper level. They shape your perceptions, decisions and actions that make up the actual cake – your career. They make it possible to imagine and create a reality that does not yet exist. They lend meaning and coherence to a career and help determine whether a possible job or change would make sense. They can also block your path and prevent you from seeing alternatives. 

So, before you get your icing all pretty, it is a good idea to make sure you know what goes in your cake.  

What are the key ingredients? 

When you are baking a cake for the first time, you need a recipe and probably some help (a teacher, parent, YouTube video). 

The recipe lists the necessary ingredients and steps, and gives you an image of the ideal end result. Our cultural career narratives, also called master narratives, are like recipes for cakes. They define the meaningful aims, competences, values, actions, and steps for a particular career path. 

There are plenty to choose from. Each organization, profession, and field has its own narrative with many variations. Some are more generic, such as the traditional “climb the career ladder” narrative, whether your ladder is about increasing levels of responsibility, status, recognition, or money. Or the “do what you love” narrative (which doesn't mean that you necessarily have found what you love, but the narrative keeps you looking).   

Where did you get your recipe? 

Whatever your narrative or recipe for a happy, successful career or life is, it's never entirely your own. Popular, tried-and-true recipes are usually the ones we start with. Perhaps you acquired your family’s favorite recipe without really giving it too much thought? Or maybe you got your recipe from the social or other media – the powerhouses of storytelling. Or it is a combination of recipes collected over the years.  

When it comes to careers, it is often difficult to know where the narratives we live by even came from. It is not like they were all spelled out in a recipe book. Even if they were, the recipes keep changing. Moreover, we adopt these narratives subconsciously in interacting with the world – noting subtle remarks dropped at the family dinner table, having conversations with peers, or collecting bits and pieces from the media. Along the way, we internalize assumptions and ideals as to what is considered a good cake, and what’s not. 

But I want to be a master chef! 

Unlike when baking a cake, in creating our careers, we are often not even aware that we are using some pregiven recipe. In fact, the idea of following a given career narrative sounds almost countercultural. Aren’t we supposed to be doing our own thing, follow our passions, rewrite the rules, be the master chefs of our unique careers? 

While unique in its details, no career evolves in a vacuum. We design our careers within the worlds we live in, using the meanings, resources, and options available.

Of course, if you wanted to be really creative, you could create your own world, narratives and Klingon (a made-up tribal language in Star Trek). But what good would that do? Your narratives are supposed to help you navigate and do something meaningful in this world, not on Star Trek.  

As you learn more about the world and its recipes, as well as your tastes and skills, you become more competent in creatively tailoring your own path. Just note that even if you wanted to be a master chef or find your own thing, you would still be living by a specific cultural narrative. 

Your career can only go where your narratives will take it 

Whether we know it or not, our careers are always shaped by many, sometimes conflicting narratives. Some are imposed on us by the organisations, institutions, and fields we are in. Some of them intersect with the narratives that define our identities, such as gender, age, ethnicity, or race. Some we are imposing on ourselves because we cannot see alternatives or have the time to stop and examine them. 

While you can’t always choose the narratives that shape your career, you can begin to note the ones you are living by. 

“Don’t be a bad cake, be a good cake”

If your career was a cake, would the cake be worth eating? Are the ends your career serves worth your life? Are your narratives taking you towards your heart’s desires, values that matter? Are there alternatives out there that would help you author a more meaningful life, a worthwhile next step? Or could there be a way to collectively challenge some of the narratives in your field that limit your possibilities and many others like you?  

Whatever narratives you do live by, that’s where your career is going. So pay attention! Otherwise you will be like the kid in the sand box hitting the same old cake mold with his shovel and chanting with fingers crossed: “don’t be a bad cake, be a good cake”.

Learn more about career design here: http://careerdesignlab.aalto.fi

Kirsi La Pointe

Blog writer

Kirsi LaPointe, D.Sc., develops and facilitates new career programs for Aalto University students and alumni based on the principles of career design and life-wide learning. Her research and expertise focus on career transitions, meaningful work practices and inclusion, and she is particularly interested in practice-based, narrative approaches to studying identity, work, and careers.

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